For the last 15 or so years, I’ve focused on film and, more recently, television programming, as the subject of my commentary. Much of my time has been spent interviewing creators, which gives me some perspective on work they create.
In reviewing what I’ve seen, this is a fair representation of what’s worthwhile. I’m inclined to support films that challenge and justify the time spent viewing them. Often high-profile, artistic films meant as award contenders get kick-started with The New York Film Festival and then land in theaters to qualify. Most are worthy of the nom talk they’ve gotten. Two of those contenders include Todd Haynes’ languidly directed Carol which offers sterling performances from Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird and Rooney Mara as her lover Therese Belivet. These lesbians try to cope with their love in the 1950s. In Steve Jobs, Michael Fassbender plays the game changing tech giant in a stylized Aaron Sorkin penned meditation on drive and success with Kate Winslet playing Jobs’ confidante/marketing exec Joanna Hoffman.
This year’s Oscar race comes down to a fight between well-meaning biopics or films based on established books with few exceptions. Among those on the best actor front are Bryan Cranston (as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo), Mark Rylance (as Abel Rudolph in Bridge of Spies) and Idris Elba as the Commandant in the painful Beasts Of No Nation (not to mention Abraham Attah whoplays the child soldier Agu). Will Smith as Dr. Bennett Amalou also turned out an uncanny performance in the NFL busting Concussion.
Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight has an ensemble cast — Brian D’arcy James (Matty Carroll), Michael Keaton (Walter “Robby” Robinson), Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeiffer), Mark Ruffalo (Michael Rezendes), Liev Schreiber (Marty Baron), John Slattery (Ben Bradlee, Jr.), Stanley Tucci (Mitchell Garabedian) — that deserves awards for a near perfect look into investigative journalism.
On the best actress front, Helen Mirren gets nods for playing both Hedda Hopper (in Trumbo) and Maria Altmann (in Woman in Gold) – two very different yet equally compelling performances. Solid on all counts was Saoirse Ronan as Eilis in the positive immigration story Brooklyn. But it’s Brie Larson as Ma in Room who shines in revealing to audiences what it’s like to survive as a sexual slave held in a shed for seven years.
Alejandro Iñarritu’s jaw-dropper, The Revenant, is rich with gritty realism thanks to seamless special effects (bear fights, a horse going over an ice cliff falling on a tree, a wild rapids run), and natural lighting, and knuckle-gnawed performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Domnhall Gleeson, Will Poulter, and Tom Hardy who escapes into his character — the nasty John Fitzgerald.
Lots of indie dramas get made and are released; however, not all are noteworthy and go unseen. Several succeed with top-ranking stars as their anchors, who showed their chops in under-the-radar films. Already in the awards cavalcade is 99 Homes with a villainous Michael Shannon as real estate manipulator Rick Carver. Others deserving of attention include Mississippi Grind (by the directors of Half Nelson) with Ryan Reynolds as an ammoral gambler. Kevin Bacon anchored the twisted police drama Cop Car; Mark Ruffalo played a bi-polar dad in Infinitely Polar Bear; Tobey McGuire played chess prodigy Bobby Fisher in Pawn Sacrifice and Chewitel Edjifor in the post-apocalyptic Z for Zachariah. Young Jacob Tremblay as Jack in Room, offered an eerie insider feel for what’s like being raised in a one room shed. Of all these indies, James Ponsoldt’s two-hander look into celeb journalism, The End of the Tour — which recalled a 1996 interview between the late novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) and Rolling Stone journalist David Lipksy (Jesse Eisenberg) — is an incredible showcase that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Another film Love and Mercy, explores the impact of fame and success on a man’s life through his music. It follows Beach Boys’ major domo Brian Wilson at two critical points in his life.
Though it failed to gain more theater goers, Aflonso Gomez-Rejon’s quirky and humorous Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a Sundance darling, is now finding new audiences, thanks to its clever and soulful screenplay by Jesse Andrews (adapting his own book).
In Grandma, Lily Tomlin delivers one of her best performances as a sharp-tongued grandmother who attempts to raise money for her granddaughter’s abortion. This tour-de-force turn should bring her Best Actress nom.
In Mistress America, Greta Gerwig’s kooky Manhattanite Brooke, annoys and charms — sort of as a representative of her whole generation. It is Lola Kirke’s performance as her protege that adds depth to the film and a critique of young women of this century.
Speaking of sexually driven comedies, two topped my list of films. They seemed trivial, but had a lot more going on once the laughs wore off. In the high-profile Trainwreck, Amy Schumer addressed modern sexual anxiety while The Overnight combined laughs with psycho-sexual profiles of the modern couple.
Notable for its exploration of aging is Oscar-winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth which stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as old friends staying at a Swiss resort reviewing their decades-long friendship against a panorama of characters (including Paul Dano and a hyperactive appearance by Jane Fonda).
Then there’s those brilliantly British movies that turn into award contenders every season. Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl qualifies with Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne playing the first reported trans-sexual Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe and the exceptional Alica Vikander as the all-suffering wife Gerda Wegener. Also Far From the Madding Crowd and Suffragette — both starring a capable Carey Mulligan, Mr Holmes and Maggie Smith’s crazy old lady dramedy, The Lady In The Van.
On the urban front, two films sucked up the attention. The N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton unfolds in the ‘80s and ’90s, but its searing look at urban crisis and police brutality resonate in a Black Lives Matter world. It’s also topped the box office three weeks in a row. And Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq tackles black-on-black crime filtered through the Greek play and character Lysistrata.
In the animated realm, two films revises our expectations such as Boy And The World
Brazilian director/writer and animator Alê Abreu’s 80 minute musical with no dialogue. A young boy’s journey unfolds with the child-like animation taking on greater complexity as his world expands, depicting a clash between village and city, hand crafted and mechanized, rich and poor. Shaun The Sheep is another wordless stop-motion animation from the Ardman Studios worth seeing for its twist-turn tale of farm animals in the city.
But the one most likely to win an award is Pixar’s box office juggernaut Inside Out ($300 million plus); director Pete Docter gives life to a sea of conflicting emotions — like Joy, Sadness and Fear — set inside a young girl’s head. It will probably be nominated in the top Oscar category, becoming the fourth animated film (after Beauty and the Beast, Up” and Toy Story 3) to do so.
Every time someone says the western is over — that it no longer taps into this country’s zeitgeist — a film or two is made that revises that assessment. Late in 2015, two of the finest revenge/action movies — though long and sometimes unwieldy — have captured the media’s attention.
Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is a wild ride trapped in one snowed-in cabin, and it’s garnered six Critics Choice noms and three Golden Globe nominations so far. With a cast that includes uber talented Jennifer Jason Leigh — who gives an amazing hard-scrapple performance — along with Kurt Russell (with an amazing mustache), Quentin vets Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins and Tim Roth, legend Bruce Dern and Demian Bichir, welcome to the twisted, genre-soaked universe of Tarantino.
Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room which unfolds as northern troops advance towards victory in the rural South during the Civil War’s final moments was powerfully surprising. Three women at its center — Augusta (Brit Marling), teenage sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave Mad (Muna Otaru) — wait for a salvation that will never come, so they fend off violent men while finding an escape.
Largely ignored, except in the technical categories, blockbuster popcorn pics drive the business, are more concerned with delivering spectacle rather than a message. Setting Star Wars The Force Awakens aside, films like Mad Max – Fury Road and Jurassic World deserve comment not only for their revision of well-worn franchises but also of how well they used effects to support their stories.
The latest in the James Bond series, Spectre, and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation ranks with the best of them. To quote another writer, “Any movie that straps Tom Cruise to the side of an A-400 plane during takeoff deserves a little Oscar love.”
But it was the ultra-realistic, drug revenge fueled Sicario and moreso, The Martian, that shine as mainstream films that work as art. Nearly as perfect a film as any, director Ridley Scott’s made a moving version of a scientifically accurate and compelling Robinson Carusoe on Mars.
And as a final side note, Ken Branagh should get props for making a beautiful version of Cinderella. Cate Blanchett again delivers a sterling performance as a sympathetic wicked stepmother. Blanchett, Vikander, Mirren and Mulligan reminds us what an amazing year it has been for so many actors.